Heroes of Philanthropy

Like many people, it was with mixed emotions that I read that Tony Blair had won GQ‘s Philanthropist of the Year award. I’m sure that no one reading this needs a disquisition from me on my personal views for or against Tony, or his politics. And whilst I am highly engaged in the subject of the ethics of philanthropy, that isn’t my principal concern here. GQ have defended the award by saying, “We like to have celebrities at our event who cause a bit of a stir. So having Tony was fantastic. We like to have people who have opinions and are forthright.” The problem with this of course being that it assumes the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This may be true if your brand is GQ, but what about the brand of UK philanthropy, is this the representation those of us concerned with increasing philanthropy are looking for?

One of the great and endearing attributes of the British (however maddening to other cultures) is our modesty, but when it comes to philanthropy the fact that we have so few places in public life where we celebrate the leadership of those who give, means that we are in effect confusing it with altruism and assuming that giving will be its own reward. I’m a great believer in philanthropy, but I don’t believe in altruism; I think that we always want something in return, even if it is just that warm glow inside. As a fundraiser, I believe that my role is fundamentally to find the reason for people to give and it’s my interest in people that keeps me passionate about the work I do, so I consider it critical to always be thinking about how we can celebrate philanthropy.

I’m currently carrying out interviews with foundations and philanthropists as part of the review of the ACE Catalyst programme and the lack of celebration of philanthropy in public life is one of several recurrent themes. This is not to say that individual organisations haven’t become much better at reciprocation, it’s clear from the growth of individual giving in the arts that this is the case. What we haven’t done is made the idea of becoming a ‘philanthropist’ a true badge of honour, one that can be attainable whatever the scale of your giving. It shouldn’t be an identity that comes only when you have a building named after you; it applies to everyone who gives, whether your gift is financial, or your time. It is about an attitude and an approach to life. And however British we are, it is a commitment that needs celebrating if we are to make it truly aspirational, something we all want to be a part of.  

The ACE Catalyst report will, I hope, be part of a wider conversation on this topic, but what I’d really like to know is, who are your Heroes of Philanthropy and how should we celebrate them? If it’s not Tony Blair, then who is it?

Caroline McCormick  |  September 2014